New Jersey added a new herb to its state garden last Tuesday when Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act on his last day in office.
But though 14 states have now legalized medical marijuana, New York, which has relatively liberal possession laws and actually passed a medical-marijuana law in 1980 but never put it to use, remains forbidden ground for those who seek to relieve their symptoms with cannabis. This year, however, supporters of medical marijuana in Albany and elsewhere hope to harness what they see as growing momentum.
Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried of Manhattan, the Health Committee chairman and a nearly annual sponsor of medical marijuana legislation, said that he hoped this year’s bill would reach the floor in the next few weeks and that both houses would pass it by March, before they get tied up with the state budget.
An almost identical bill has been proposed in the Senate, sponsored by Thomas K. Duane, the Senate Health Committee chairman. Each bill would allow the use of marijuana to “treat a serious illness under medical supervision,” such as cancer, arthritis or H.I.V./AIDS.
“I think that the main obstacle over the years has been the fear of many in public life to touch anything with drugs,” Mr. Gottfried said. “But I think the climate around the states has changed.” He referred to the new laws in a handful of states, as well as to the reversal in longstanding federal policy in October, when the Justice Department stopped pursuing and prosecuting users or providers of medical marijuana who were complying with state laws.
“What is often surprising is that people tend to assume it’s a controversial bill, and that’s been an obstacle,” Mr. Gottfried said. “But other than the state Conservative Party, there has been little to no resistance. Even public opinion polls show overwhelming support.”
Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, said that the issue had not come up recently and had not on been on the Senate’s radar. Several Republican senators have quietly expressed support for medical marijuana, said Gabriel Sayegh, a project director for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which works to promote medical marijuana laws.
Michael R. Long, the chairman of New York State’s Conservative Party, said that while he was not currently working with any organizations to block the bill, he firmly believed that passing the legislation would send the wrong signal to young people, especially in the face of the antismoking campaigns and taxes on sugared drinks.
“And especially when there is no medical proof that marijuana assists anyone anyway,” Mr. Long said. “It would open the floodgates for misuse.”
In 1980, the Legislature and Gov. Hugh L. Carey enacted a medical marijuana law in New York. But the law required that a state review board be set up to rule on doctors’ requests to prescribe marijuana, and one was never appointed.
In this century, medical marijuana bills have been introduced several times. Two passed the Assembly with bipartisan support, but stalled in the Senate. Last year’s version was derailed during the Senate stalemate in Albany in June.
Some Republicans who favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes are against the idea of allowing patients and caregivers to grow their own, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
Others have looked with concern at California, where the state has had difficulties restricting the sale and cultivation of marijuana after its law was passed in 1996. There, local governments have had to step in because of public safety issues, as well as unintended effects that some say have a provided legal shield for commercial growers. Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council moved to shutter most of the city’s thousand-plus marijuana dispensaries.
To make the law more palatable to skeptics, Mr. Gottfried said, this year’s legislation allows registered patients to obtain at most only most 2.5 ounces of the drug from state-licensed entities, which would be overseen by the state’s Department of Health.
While Gov. David A. Paterson has not announced his position on the bill, he made his views on the issue known in a Rolling Stone article last year. “Our society is odd because we have this contempt for marijuana smoking,” he said. “Meanwhile, people have access to pharmaceutical products that are just destroying them.”
Other supporters of medical marijuana in New York include the Medical Society of the State of New York, the New York State Nurse’s Association, the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York, the StateWide Senior Action Council and Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“If New York doesn’t pass medical marijuana legislation,” said Mr. Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, “it has everything to do with the dysfunction in Albany.”
By EMILY S. RUEB
January 26, 2010